50 years after an alien invasion which almost wiped out the planet, one young boy is humanities only hope to end the war for good.
Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel Ender's Game is a deserved modern classic, a detailed look at the way a child is moulded into a soldier capable of commanding a space battle which could signal the end of the human race. It's exciting, complex, brutal and also filled with a huge amount of compassion, a mix which has made it recommended reading for the US military.
Naturally, any well regarded novel immediately becomes considered for a movie adaptation, and this one has been in the works for decades. But launching a new sci-fi franchise is never an easy thing, especially one with a story this layered and, not incidentally, featuring 6 year olds tussling to the death.
Card attempted his own script in the 90s but it took an entirely new voice to finally bring Ender's Game to the big screen. South Africa filmmaker Gavin Hood (best known for Tsotsi and that other Wolverine movie) penned an all new script and takes the helm for one of the biggest independent movies ever mounted.
And the result is a fine slice of science-fiction movie-making, complete with all the VFX wizardry you expect from this kind of entertainment, with an extra level of grit and moral complexity which puts it in that rare category of compelling book adaptations.
Hood has struck a keen balance between accuracy to the book and discarding those elements which simply wouldn't work on screen. The blogging parallel story with Peter and Valentine has been entirely excised, while the age of the kids has been increased to no younger than 12. Decent six year old actors are hard to find, and this change also compresses the action into mere months rather than the multi-year sprawl of the original.
But the rest of the picture is very familiar, often using dialogue and scenes ripped directly from the book. But even that is far from a simple task, as each and every moment has to be brought to life in a visual form. And it's done with considerable flair, particularly the glass and metal structure of the Battle School and Hood's vivid take on the video game Ender is forced to play.
In some ways, this version might even beat the book. The zero g battles in particular are stunning to behold, with a great sense of childish discovery and wonder that soon gives way to some impressively presented strategies. Hood simplifies the rules of this game to make the fights more entertaining and makes great use of a mix of CG and wirework. And it's all tied together by a wonderful score from Steve Jablonsky.
Casting Ender himself was always going to be difficult but young Brit Asa Butterfield (Hugo) does a very capable job. While he certainly doesn't look 12 (he would have been 15 at the time of production) his spindly stature gives him a vulnerable air, even as he's decimating all comers.
The casting in general is better than expected, with stand outs including Moises Arias as Bonzo, a sympathetic Abigail Breslin as Valentine and Viola Davis' Major Anderson. Then there's Harrison Ford, who puts in his most committed performance in years, complete with the added bonus of his sci-fi heritage.
For some the story will be altogether too serious, as there's nothing light hearted about Ender's journey. But it's also one of those rare occasions where younger humans aren't treated like lesser individuals. There's nothing condescending about what's presented here, with the kids in the audience treated with the same respect as their on screen peers. Read our interview with Hood for more on this.
And while that finale may not be quite as powerful on-screen, Hood manages to handle a difficult narrative moment in a way that should be satisfying to newcomers and fans alike.
For my part, I enjoyed everything Ender's Game had to offer – from its engaging themes and moments of surprising violence, to the stunning visuals and scenes of childish discovery and play. It's a proper sci-fi movie, and one that takes its ideas as seriously as it does its moments action-packed adventure.
It's harder to predict the general reaction to the film. While some audiences may claim to crave more intelligent blockbusters, it's spectacle not smarts not which tend to rule at the box office. I hope audiences embrace Ender's Game as an example not only of exemplary adaptation but also a worthy genre film in its own right but I have the feeling its going to be left to drift alone into obscurity.
Read our massive interview with writer/director Gavin Hood here.
Win goodies for Ender's Game here.